Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Straight up, with a twist.

If you have a big enough martini, the universe will eventually speak to you.

Or so it seemed, anyway, when I whisked Sweetie and me to a very lovely Caribbean resort last week to celebrate the end of a careening year of changes for us both. You see, you can’t keep a good cowboy down, especially the brand kind. A gin-addled escapist I may have been, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention. Our little sojourn under the swaying palms was not without its anthropological treats.

For one thing, iPads were everywhere. At one point, it wouldn’t have been an exaggeration to say that every other poolside lounge chair featured one right where the latest edition of InStyle would have perched were we in a different century. Granted, the resort made this kind of thing easy by providing wi-fi everywhere on the property. But it was still notable that it wasn’t laptop computers or netbooks we were seeing, or even iPhones. And what was really striking was the naturalness of it. Unlike a lot of mobile devices, an iPad user isn’t declaring to the world what she’s doing just by firing it up. She might be reading emails, or a magazine. She might be writing a book, or she might be assembling a puzzle picture of the girl with the pearl earring. That’s a sea change. ‘Connectedness’, the grail for which little computers and big smart phones have quested since the 1990s, is finally won. Carrying a mobile device is no longer like having a pinless grenade hanging from your belt. Everybody gets to decide what it means now, mediated only a little – relatively speaking - by Apple.

Logos, by contrast, were hardly anywhere. The particular resort where we stayed works hard at cloistering you from the real world, and a collateral effect of this is that the only brands they display (besides their own now and then) are on liquor bottles. Otherwise, all the brands you see are on the golf bags and t-shirts of the guests. That was pretty interesting to me. For one thing, these displays were voluntary. We weren’t talking, here, about discreet little lizards embroidered on the breasts of shirts. We were talking about big, honkin’ logozillas, entirely avoidable by the buyers of the products that wore them, and entirely brazen. And for another, they were deliberate declarations. I refrained from conducting a focus group on this, and the respondents would probably have lied through their teeth anyway if I had. But in the absence of any ambient branding, it was almost always obvious what drove a consumer’s choice to display one of his own: “I belong here.” “I don’t belong here.” I take my golf seriously.” “This isn’t the only fancy resort I’ve been to.” “I’m a lot more interesting than you think.” “I have my own airplane.” (Ironically, the phalanxes of iPads didn’t make this kind of statement. The fact that there were so many, combined with their dour little black cases, gave an impression not unlike the one you get driving through a Mennonite town). It turns out that an assertion I make in Consumer Republic might be true: Brands carry social meaning, and that social meaning is useful to people.

And then there was the kindness. I can’t say what alloy of local culture and brilliant leadership caused it, but the people who worked at this resort were unfailingly, warmly, genuinely kind all the time about everything. I hadn’t said ‘thank you’ so often in the course of a day since our wedding (I married up). I bet nobody else had, either. And that’s really what got my attention. It wasn’t just that the people were kind to the customers, but that the relentlessness of this kindness eventually ended up making the customers behave the same way. A brilliant young professor I interviewed for Consumer Republic argues that social consensus is arrived at through the application of pride and shame. Here, all the pride was attached not to power or advantage, but to being sweet. It almost became a competitive sport. And it started with, of all things, somebody’s corporate culture.

Looking at my notes this week, once again pale, sober and dressed in layers, the observations seemed to stand: Connectedness has come of age. Consumers give brands their meaning. And brands have the power to make positive change. The words of the prophets may indeed be written on subway walls but, like all good content, they’ve apparently been syndicated. I got mine at the beach.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A whisper to a scream.

Last month’s dustup between Malcolm Gladwell and everybody on the internet is over and mostly forgotten. The chalk lines on the pavement are almost washed away, the police tape is fluttering in the wind, and the pundits have moved on to the next streetfight. For those who missed it, here’s the digest version: Malcolm, waving his erudition around like a rapier, asserts that social media cannot be instrumental in social change. The internet gang, ably represented by the likes of Mathew Ingram and brandishing its recent history like so many broken beer bottles and switchblades, parries back that this is not so. Even Biz Stone is moved to hold forth. But détente eludes them all. Nobody is persuaded. Everybody moves on.

The debate kind of got under my skin, though. And not just because it ended at the kind of binary side-choosing that ruins so much political discourse these days. It also seemed to me that not chasing the debate to a conclusion caused a lot of people – Mr. Gladwell most especially – to miss the real point of what social media are doing to that discourse, and to all discourse. Maybe with politics it’s just too hard to see any truth in the middle, but I can assure you that in marketplaces it isn’t, and maybe that can teach us something.

Once upon a time, marketplaces really did seem to be binary systems. People bought products or they didn’t. This made marketing and consuming alike into a sort of gambling, with brands being the only way to really mitigate risk and blind experimentation the only way to figure out what people wanted. This, I think, is what the social web has really changed. Now, we can see spectrum. We can see shades of sentiment, and degrees of engagement and commitment. By lowering the barriers to self-expression, we can see revolutions at their nascent moments. We can see the size of the formerly silent majority, whether it’s on its way to activism or not, and how soon it will matriculate. Whether the vocal few are the tip of some kind of iceberg, or merely outliers. We can see the state of the world drawn in infinite detail in what was once the space between the empty threat of a focus group and the hard reality of a ringing cash register. Or, if you like, between the empty threat of polling data and the hard reality of tear gas. The world has always been a dangerous place when only radicals get to talk. Sentiment – whether in marketplaces or among electorates – is more like the weather than it is like a switch. And now we can see it coming.

What Gladwell ignored in his evocation of the civil rights movement is this: A few people who do something radical to make social change are just terrorists if everybody else isn’t ready for that change. In the past, in societies and marketplaces alike, the only way you could identify a bellwether was in the rearview mirror. As a citizen, as a marketer and as a consumer, I like this new world better. It may be messier and feel less certain, and it may be full of people who are undecided or more willing to talk than act. But, by not being so black and white, it is a lot more inclusive, and a lot more true.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Simply red.

One of my deepest, darkest secrets is that I’ve been a closeted motorhead since I was five years old. These days, I don’t get to indulge this weakness much, the times and the burdens of adulthood being what they are. But I do still have a well-used little sports car I’m rather fond of, and twice a year I gather up my chequebook and my trepidation and take the aging hussy to its mechanic for some attention. That’s where I was yesterday morning and, waiting in the showroom, that intemperate red beast in the cell phone pic above is pretty much the only thing I could see. I stared at it, sat in it (don’t tell anybody), and generally wallowed in gauzy nostalgia until my bill came. Oh, man.

It’s called a Ferrari F40, and I had a model of one of these things in my office for many years. Not just because it’s cool, either, which it patently is, but because it was a symbol of something sacred about a marketer’s duty to a brand, and about what a brand is really for. Here’s why.

At the end of the 1980s, Ferrari was not the motorsport powerhouse it is today. It was struggling in Formula 1, tough medicine for a company that seemed to sell cars so it could race rather than the other way around. And its road cars were no longer necessarily the uncontested ultimate in performance or prestige. Most galling had been Porsche’s recent introduction of the 959, an all-wheel-drive technological tour de force that was so sophisticated even an ordinary driver could make it fly. The Germans had thrown down a gauntlet they probably didn’t really believe Ferrari would pick up. In a sense, it wouldn’t. Enzo Ferrari, the man behind the company and its cars, was by then 90 years old, but he was not about to stand down from this one last fight, nor delegate it to a marketing department, nor let the competition make the rules. The F40 was to be his final statement.

At this point in the story, if we were talking about minivans or shampoo or e-commerce web sites, the word “better” would probably rear its sanctimonious head. Teams of clever and determined professional marketers would deconstruct the fearsome Porsche, and figure out how to exceed it in every objective way. A little like the tablet computer dustup we’re seeing today, ego and technocracy would guide the competitive response. Enzo’s F40 was no such thing. In stark contrast to the cool, competent, innovative 959, the F40 was simply an animal. It was ferociously powerful and light, and yet didn’t even have traction control. It was astonishingly expensive, and yet you had to pull the doors closed with plastic covered ropes. The interior had no grand touring pretensions like the Porsche’s, and made no effort to conceal the brutal plumbing that made it go. In the hands of truly talented drivers, it was the fastest production car in the world from 1987 to 1989. In the hands of anything less, it was merely lethal.

It was, in no sense and by no comparison, “better”. And in Enzo’s parting statement to the world, the marque ended up reborn.

That’s why it was such an inspiration to the young brandcowboy. Ferrari’s way of coping with being on the defensive was to remain stubbornly true to itself, to not let the enemy dictate the terms of battle, and to be willing to exclude customers if doing so meant preserving the integrity of its brand. In the end, this is the only way any marketer can earn passionate loyalty, the only way it can be irreplaceable to its customers. And it’s pretty hard to succeed at growing any business if those two conditions aren’t in place first, no matter what you ‘re selling.

What a lesson, still.

Friday, October 15, 2010


A South African fellow of my acquaintance has an expression for this: “smelling your own socks.” Vivid image, that. But I suppose this is what I was doing the other day when I picked up a copy of The Orange Code and skimmed through it for the first time in a long while.

It’s been exactly two years this month since our book about the story of ING Direct launched, which would not ordinarily be an interesting piece of information. Not unless it was this particular two years. Remember the fall of 2008? The Lehman collapse, and the looming sense of apocalypse in the aftermath? Remember that uneasy holiday season, and then, finally, the crapstorm itself at the dawn of 2009? Bank failures, government bailouts, foreclosure signs on lawns across America… it was pretty sketchy for a while there, and some experts suggested that we’d all come closer to the abyss than anyone wanted to admit. And in the wake of it, a consumer who had both lost confidence in banks (according to Gallup, fully 38% of Americans had “very little confidence” in the country’s financial institutions even as recently as last month) and was flat out angry at them. Of all the ‘toxic assets’ in the system, customer faith was surely the most so.

Things have settled down a little now, but the relationship between banks and their customers has probably changed forever, for the banks left standing, that is. And for me, The Orange Code is born anew. You see, when we wrote this book, it was a story about a successful brand. There have been lots of those. But rarely in the history of business writing has anybody described a successful branding model and then –with the ink on the page barely dry – had that model tested on so biblical a scale. Today, après le deluge, ING Direct is still trucking along, still enjoying passionately loyal customers and a healthy business. All that stuff my co-author said about principled leadership and the paramount importance of a customer-focused mission, it turned out to be true. It turned out to have built an enterprise that was more seaworthy than anyone could have predicted it would need to be. Suddenly, thanks to the intervention of history, The Orange Code is a lot less theoretical.

I think that’s why it’s worth a read now more than ever, if you haven’t yet. Yeah, I know, I’m just promoting our book. But just because it’s marketing doesn’t mean it’s not true. Or that it stinks.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Plus ça change.

What a delightful poopstorm the new Gap logo has been. I’m not sure what’s more howlingly funny: the brilliant Twitter feed of @gaplogo (the irritable, vaguely sociopathic anthropomorphized logo drunkenly lashing out at its critics), or Gap’s own lame retreat from the redesign on its Facebook page (“We love our version, but we’d like to see other ideas…) and in the CEO’s HuffPo blog (apparently, the imperative to design a new logo has something to do with “new black pants”).

The substance of the criticism thus far has focused on the design. Lay people say they hate it and question the need for change, and design geeks are still in paroxysms over the use of Helvetica and the strange blue box hovering in the background. But if this were a giant focus group, I wouldn’t be buying a word these people are saying. The words sound logical enough, but there’s nothing evident to explain all the emotional heat behind them. Helvetica doesn’t have the power to enrage all by itself, not unless it’s on a parking ticket. Something else is going on here.

There are certain things a brand does that should be refreshed all the time. That’s how people know you’re still alive, and you’re still aware that they are, too. Things like advertising are part of the marketplace conversation, and they need to flow. But there are other things that should almost never change, especially without an obvious motive (black pants notwithstanding). Consumers need to know that you are authentic, that you’re sure of the values you claim to have as a brand, that you have some self-respect and a vision of your own. A logo is on that list. For a brand, new ads are like new clothes, but a new logo is like going into the witness protection program. It’s unsettling, and it’s risky.

But it’s not the riskiness that’s got people exercised about this. It’s that Gap doesn’t seem to appreciate that risk. They made the change, they didn’t explain it respectfully, and to ice the cake, the change didn’t carry any semiotic freight that people could connect with. They just did it. As if they weren’t afraid of the consumer at all. That’s arrogant. And that’s what’s bugging people, whether they realize it or not. It’s amplified by the fact that Gap had really started to acquire some gravity as a brand, and by the fact that it’s a fashion brand and thus a mediator and curator of value rather than a creator of it. But mostly it was just the arrogance. They acted like a big oil company, changing their identity because they damned well pleased, and blithely assuming we’d relearn it because they said so. If you want to reproduce this phenomenon, try rearranging the furniture while your spouse is at work.

I think the great yet-unlearned lesson of our age for marketers is that they don’t have sole dominion over their brands anymore. In the parliament of the marketplace, brands are negotiated with their consumers. The new Gap logo could have been a thing of transcendent beauty, and it still would have got under people’s skin for a while. Consumers don’t really care that much about logos. But they hate it when they see even the slightest sign you’re willing to take them for granted.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The serpent.

Ever since the first feisty, breathless utterings of the Cluetrain Manifesto, the digital disciples of marketing’s Age of Aquarius have been certain that the internet would level the playing field between the consumer and the corporation once and for all. Marketplaces, they intone, will become conversations, and we, the consumer, will get what we want rather than what corporations are trying to sell. When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, the malls of the world will glitter with brands that are accountable, transparent and authentic. Meanwhile, for marketers, consumer behavior will finally be objectively measurable at practically the atomic level. Everybody will win. It will be paradise.

Well, it could be. But it isn’t. Not yet, anyway.

This was my bleak conclusion as I sat with a former student of mine earlier this week and listened as he explained how people use technology to inflate their Twitter follower numbers. I’d always wondered how it could be that obscure “social media consultants” could have bigger follower numbers than, say, the Ford Motor Company. I’d put it down to some kind of early adopter dividend, but it turns out that it’s just some kind of game for them. Nor are they alone in seeing the digital marketplace the way a pickpocket sees a crowded boulevard. When I interviewed Wired’s founding editor John Battelle for Consumer Republic, he described certain elements of the corporate and media worlds “fiercely gaming the system” to improve their search ranks, while Google fights to stay ahead of them – and essential to them - by constantly updating their algorithm. And this chicanery is not so new. I remember how in the web’s very earliest days, site owners would sell their traffic numbers to the uninitiated by reporting “hits”, conveniently leaving out the detail that one page view can produce dozens of hits depending on how many elements are on it.

There was lots wrong with the old way of doing commercial media. They were fat oligopolies, and they depended on an undemocratic marketplace to prosper. Still, if you bought a commercial spot in a prime time television show, the audience size got measured by a third party (usually Nielsen, for television), and the price you paid turned on their verdict. Print circulation numbers were audited, at least for the paid publications. There was some accountability there. The one question you generally never had to ask was whether you were getting the reach you paid for. It was a regulated commodity. Past that, a brand won or lost on its persuasive merits. That particular baby would be a shame to toss out along with the wasteful bathwater of 20th century media.

Every new frontier attracts its share of carpetbaggers, every paradise its dubious fruit vendors. But what’s made this one especially fragile is that the tools for cheating are so accessible to the producers, and so opaque to the rest of us. It’s so easy to cheat, and so hard to get called on it, and that adds up to overwhelming temptation. While the average consumer may never figure out exactly why she can’t trust what she sees online, her instincts will ultimately be, as they have always been, unerring. And if it comes to that, I don’t know where marketing would go next. If consumer choice came to equal risk rather than power, it would simply be game over for the whole damned system before its rennaissance ever really had a chance to get off the ground.

Measureable doesn’t mean honest. Data doesn’t mean truth. I think digital marketing ethics are the next thing we need to talk about here in the garden of branding, while we still can. There sure hasn’t been much conversation about it up to now.

I know. I Googled it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Counting crows.

If there is one thing that unites marketers and consumers into a single strident, stubborn voice, it’s the firm belief that the social meaning of brands is an irrelevant mirage. Marketers resist it because there’s nothing to count, it’s hard to win at, and it makes for lousy PowerPoint presentations. Consumers resist it because they fear it makes them look vain and shallow, and foolish with their money. And this congruence is matched, if at all, only by the fact that both are egregiously and abjectly wrong about that.

Branding is all about social meaning. Over the last century, one by one, all the practical reasons for brands to exist have fallen away – branding has decoupled itself from manufacturing, from functional superiority and lately even from status – and yet the firmament of brands is more filled with glittering specimens than it has ever been before. And the reason: Social meaning has value to consumers. Brands are a vivid palette we can use to create avatars of ourselves, and we’re willing to pay good money and to humour marketers to keep ‘em coming.

Still, it’s a contention that’s likely to get you that dogs-watching-TV look from people when you float the idea in a boardroom, or a focus group, or at a splendid dinner party. So imagine my delight at stumbling on this little dialectical silver bullet today: Gamers who play immersive virtual reality games are willing to pay more for branded virtual products, and sales of same are growing like gangbusters.

The white paper is worth a read, though it focuses more on the tactical marketing opportunity in the phenomenon. The real story, for me, though, lay in the vast, unintended branding experiment. It was as if someone had created a giant laboratory Pleasantville for consumers in which there were brands to choose from, but it was absolutely impossible to make a bad product choice. The logical outcome of an experiment like that would seem to be commoditization. People would stop caring about which toaster they bought, and the category would rapidly devolve into being like pork bellies and soybeans. But that didn’t happen. People still engaged in choice-making, and they still parted with more money than they needed to in order to make those choices observable.


It’s not for marketers to convince consumers to admit to this need, though I’m going to take a good run at it in Consumer Republic. But it is something marketers need to worry more about. It’s inescapable that the social meaning of a brand is going to grow and grow as a component of attraction. It’s inarguable that more and more consumer contact with brands is going to occur in a social context, online or otherwise. So it seems to me inevitable that marketing will continue to evolve from being about value… to being about meaning.

Soon, for a lot of brands, that’s all there will be left to sell. The only thing that really counts.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Gather the horses.

It’s the name of a song by a musician called Charlie Mars. It’s about battles that must be won. I was turned on to the singer by Lance Armstrong, who mentioned him on Twitter a few months ago. Lance Armstrong doesn’t know me from a lamppost, but I follow him anyway. A sometime cyclist myself, I was stirred by the heroic image of Armstrong suiting up to race, set to Charlie Mars singing “there’s fighting here to be done.” It’s on my iPod. Because you never know.

In ten weeks, I will walk out of the firm I co-founded 14 years ago for the last time as its CEO. I’ll remain a shareholder, for the moment at least. And there are clients with whom my relationship is something more than remunerative, and for whom I hope I can still be a useful advisor. But make no mistake, I am gathering the horses. There are times in your life when comfortable is the most uncomfortable thing you can possibly be. If you think that brands are important work, then right here, right now is one of them.

When we founded the firm in 1996, I was deeply convinced that the advertising agency was badly in need of reinvention. You could see media proliferating. You could see the internet coming. You could see the fractured narratives that brands were turning into. And you could see how advertising agencies were both the best qualified to guide them, and the least interested in doing so. It seemed like a vein of gold. Important work, valuable work, which nobody was stepping up to do with any real conviction. We made some progress, and so did a few others like us. But there is a very long way to go. It seems as though, as an industry, advertising only gathered up the courage to look into the abyss in the last couple of years. I think, now, it will figure things out. So will its clients. And I’m not sure there’s much I can do to help. In any case, an even bigger battle looms.

I think brands are important work. For all the criticism that’s been heaped on the way companies sell things, it remains indisputable that a world with brands is a world in which the consumer is in control. Brands mean choice, and choice means power to the people. And brands, however tenuously, make corporations accountable. Without this little feature of capitalism, ordinary citizens lose their ability to influence the system. In an era in which everything seems to be up for grabs and everybody – from environmentalists to web marketers – seems to have a point of view on how marketing should be reborn, this has become very interesting to me. This is the battle I’m itching to join. However we reimagine the way business gets done in the future, we need to make sure it has a conscience. In the right hands, a brand can be that.

My upcoming book, Consumer Republic, is kind of a manifesto for this, though it nails its theses to the consumer’s door rather than the corporation’s. I hope it starts a lot of conversations. I hope a lot of people want to hear me talk about it, and then argue with me. I want to invest more time, too, in training and teaching people about this ‘ethical’ way of thinking about branding, and how to do it. And I truly want to get my hands dirty again, consulting to people who want to build that kind of brand. However I end up filling my days and putting food on my table, though, the battle that must be won now isn’t about a formula for marketing anymore. It’s about a purpose.

Wish me luck.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The name of the beast.

Far be it from me to jump on the BP dogpile. If punditry were Pampers, that hole would have been plugged weeks ago. I have nothing to add to the discussion about whether BP’s brand – or its business - is going to be a casualty of this mess, or even whether they’re handling it intelligently. There’s a colloquialism for this, of which the first two syllables are “cluster,” and the only unfolding media story that’s getting anywhere close to this attention and analysis right now involves grown men kicking a ball (a ball made, ironically, mostly of petroleum products. Leather, even more ironically, apparently tends to hold too much moisture).

But, if you’re in the branding business, it’s hard not to reflect on it anyway. It’s hard not to wonder if there are any lessons here, even if our business isn’t poking holes in the planet to see if there’s anything gooey inside. And it’s hard not to conclude that there are at least two, and that they apply no matter what you sell. Even if what you sell is you.

The first is that to have a brand is to be accountable. There is simply no way to avoid the natural law that if you want the marketing power a famous brand gives you, you have to accept that being a lightning rod for accountability comes with the deal. It is, in fact, second only to choice, the main reason consumers tolerate branding at all. In the case of the Gulf disaster, it was stunning how quickly BP became that lightning rod. Without disputing that they are the biggest actor in the story, it was amazing how quickly the other two oil exploration companies leasing the Deepwater Horizon fell off the media radar. It was amazing how quickly Halliburton and Transocean disappeared from the coverage and from our minds. And why? Because BP is famous. In 2009, BP was one of the 100 most valuable global brands on the planet, according to Interbrand. They pump 22 billion gallons a year into gas tanks in America alone, through 10,000 BP-branded filling stations there. Their fame made them a target, and it gave we, the people, leverage that we just don’t have against a company like Halliburton. Even the marketing-savvy White House recognized this, and early, too: Less than two weeks after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, the White House blog had given it a name – The Deepwater BP Oil Spill – complete with its own logo, just like the cable news networks do. Even with its terrible cost, this disaster is a reminder that, in the branding game as in the superhero game, great power comes with great responsibility.

The second is that a brand is not a logo, and a rebranding is not a design project. In 2000, BP embarked on a ‘rebranding’. They hired fancy people to do it, and paid them $7 million. For this, they received a very attractive logo, I would imagine a lovely and thuddingly dense rationale document, and the audacious claim that an oil company can be a friend of the planet. After that, we can assume that the creators of this brand hopped into their arrogant little Audis, being careful to first hang their Prada jackets in the back, and zoomed off to the next transformation. As for BP, we don’t need to assume. The CEO at the time, John Browne, told the press, “It’s all about increasing sales, increasing margins and reducing costs at the retail site.” And, with arrogance and foolishness that were supreme in equal measure, his organization believed that a pretty green flower was going to help get that job done. It’s not a ludicrous stretch to imagine that some of the seeds of disaster were planted then, especially if the people who work for BP experienced any dissonance between the message sent by their new ‘brand’ and the realities of working there. That kind of thing only promotes cynicism and disengagement in an organization. What I suspect BP did not realize, and what far, far too many corporations today still don’t realize, is that a brand is not a marketing imperative. It’s an organizational imperative. A company does not have a brand. A company is a brand.

As consumers, we can start to redeem this mess by thinking about how we all face the problem of oil dependency. We know what we need to do, and to say. But perhaps less obvious is that there’s a chance to redeem this mess as corporations, too, whatever we happen to sell. If all of this serves to remind corporate leadership that brands mean accountability, and that corporations have to live their brands rather than just wearing them, it will surely be some small progress against this kind of history repeating itself. It is, in any case, if you ask me, the essence of the job. The weight of that responsibility is not something from which a leader can ever get their “life back,” Mr. Hayward. It is their life.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Hope floats.

Spare a thought for the mightiest beast from the Age of the Great Lizards, the seminal 20th century marketer Procter & Gamble. Against any sensible bet, P&G is lumbering away from the mass media tar pit it helped to create, and apparently into a future that is every bit as bright as its past. I read this piece yesterday about their e-commerce play, and for about the sixth time this year found myself marveling at their dogged capacity to evolve.

P&G doesn’t just exemplify old school branding, they invented the game. So you’d think they’d have the deepest commitment to that old status quo, and a culture so hidebound that they’d perish sooner than betray themselves by changing. You’d think they wouldn’t have much more to teach us as we merrily skip our way into the giddy, crowdsourced, there-are-no-bad-ideas future. But I’m starting to think that you’d be wrong about that.

A long time ago, I did a tour of duty on a couple of P&G brands, Ivory and Olay. In those days, working on P&G really was like compulsory military service: a lot of character-building menial tasks, a rigid hierarchy, strict rituals, and a certain amount of public humiliation. But it made you stronger, and it was a great credential if you wanted a career in strategy. Still, it took some time to realize that what made them so maddening to work with is also what makes them so formidable, and maybe even as good a model for 21st century branding as they ever were the 20th century kind. Here are some examples of what I mean:

They were devout custodians of the past. Long before we used terms like ‘storytelling’ to make sense of branding, no P&G brand manager was ever far from his brand’s historical reel. Whatever advertising or promotion a brand did had to make sense in the context of what had gone before.

They were not interested in your opinions. They were contemptuous, of them, in fact. What they were interested in was the product of your analysis. The fact that you were in the room did not entitle you to speak. Only the fact that you knew what you were talking about, from the ground up and over time, could do that. And lost credibility took time to recover. A lot of it, sometimes.

They took the same unsentimental view of advertising as a farmer takes of his livestock. Cute only incidentally, but mostly just there to do a job. Thus, no commercial got produced until it had objectively proven in testing that it could outperform whatever it was meant to replace, regardless of how long it had been running. Different wasn’t enough; different, in fact, was regressive. It had to be better, or it didn’t get shot regardless of how many agency creative directors wet their pants laughing at the storyboard.

Advertising ideas had to be predicated on the product they were selling. The story in an ad had to be impossible without it, in fact. The practice of amusing viewers and hoping to be rewarded with a transaction was not on the menu in Cincinnati, and advertising awareness was among the least interesting metrics they collected. It was all well and good that the audience heard the shot, but it didn’t matter unless it hit the target.

They were deeply suspicious of innovation. They were allergic to the Hail Mary, to the unfettered creativity, to the idea that their own orthodoxy was an obstacle. They preferred to be who they know they are, preferred their brands to stay in character, because they know that works. There is a reason why Warren Buffett was and remains a P&G shareholder.

And there were no soloists. You just never saw a careerist using a P&G brand to make himself famous, something that happens sometimes even at P&G’s closest rival, Unilever. The steward of a brand was bound to it and to the system that created it, and the way to succeed was to objectively build its business, while leaving the brand at least as healthy as she found it for whoever succeeded her.

When just about anybody can anoint themselves a genius, maven or (shudder) jedi of branding and there’s an unlimited supply of shiny new paradigms mocking the past, it’s reassuring to see that there might be some kind of connection between being disciplined and accountable, and being successful. Continuity is badly undervalued in branding these days, despite mounting evidence that it’s the only thing consumers still trust.

Slow down. Trust facts. Do what works until it doesn’t. It’s not glamorous, but it turns out that this might just be the best age defying formula ever to come out of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Out on a limb.

One of the first things they tell you in strategy wonk school is, “Correlation is not the same as causation.” It’s great advice, heeded too seldom in our business and rarely if at all in the popular media. We all know, for example, that peanut butter and jelly are frequently found together, but only an over-caffeinated headline writer would make the leap to “Peanut butter results in jelly outbreak!”

But that’s not to say that correlations should be ignored. Where there is smoke, fire isn’t usually far away, and here’s an example I thought was pretty interesting.

Far away in organized, sober Switzerland, there is a research company called Covalence. Their business is to rate the ethical performance of corporations around the world. They do this with apparent discipline, reporting quarterly on scores that combine measures of everything from environmental stewardship to labour relations to human rights records. They rank 581 companies in 18 sectors of the global economy. I mentioned this list in my No Logo piece back in January, and it’s interesting reading. And for those of us who think that brands are possibly not the work of the devil, there are two correlations that are tough to dismiss.

The first is obvious from just looking at the list, and it was the point of my January 28 post: The closer you get to the top, the more likely it seems to be that the corporation is or has consumer-facing brands. And the closer to the bottom of the list you get, the more likely it seems to be that the corporation drills for oil, or makes chemicals, or mines for minerals, or does something else that is pretty much invisible to those of us who wander the mall. Every one of the top 10 in the latest report, in fact, is a name you can find on products you might have in your own house. The correlation: Fame and/or a dependence on consumer preference seem to be peanut butter to the jelly of corporate accountability.

The second involves an unrelated list (and the flouting of yet another statistical convention), this one Interbrand’s annual ranking of 100 Best Global Brands, a list that ranks brands on the basis of their cash value. Put those two lists together, and to your delight you will find that fully a third of the 100 most ethical companies rated by Covalence are also on Interbrand’s list of 100 most valuable brands, despite the fact that Covalence’s list includes corporations that would never be considered for the Interbrand study.

What’s it mean? Well, I guess if you want to get all orthodox on me, we can’t say we know for sure. But taking these two observations together, I think you could make a pretty good case that branded corporations are likely to behave better as corporate citizens than unbranded ones, and that the reason for this is those brands are too valuable to gamble on being naughty. I’ve seen guys taken away in handcuffs on CSI Miami with less to go on than this.

And now that I’m drunk on speculation, here’s a bonus fun fact: Of the 39 holdings reported by Berkshire Hathaway at the end of last year – you know, the world’s most successful investor, captained by the Oracle of Omaha himself, Warren Buffett – 28 had consumer facing brands. 17 of them, by the way, also appeared on at least one of those other two lists. So, apparently, if fame begets accountability, it’s just possible that the two together produce wealth.

(This is when, were I David Caruso, I would take my sunglasses off and say something trenchant).

So I guess you could say that brands are good business and leave it at that, sparing yourself the expense of buying my upcoming book. But I think the real message is much, much bigger and worth some Swiss-style sober thought. I think it demonstrates the colossal power of the consumer so long as there is choice in the marketplace, and the good that power is capable of doing. Those people may have, as it turns out, something more than the power of life and death over a business and its brand. Those people may, in fact, be its conscience.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Oaky, with a hint of WTF.

It was one of those hyperlink ambushes that happens to us all from time to time. You start off innocently enough, searching for information on, oh, say, the correct way to spell ‘Walmart’. One thing leads to another, click begets click, and minutes melt away as you fall down, down, down into a digital rabbit hole. At the bottom of which is Gary Vaynerchuk.

If you don’t know the name of this cherubic, potty-mouthed social media phenomenon, you may have avoided Twitter just a little too long. But if you do, you probably know that he’s a big deal out there. From gonzo wine video blogger to New York Times bestseller in three years, a messiah to the wide-eyed soldiers of the social economy, a branding consultant therein, and a sought after keynote speaker on how to make your hustling dreams come true. And it was in his latter capacity that, this day, my fall down the rabbit hole was broken by the frozen evangelical glare of Gary Vee. Someone had re-re-reposted a link to his recent talk at SXSW, the annual film/music/interactive happening in Austin, TX. All the cool kids had been buzzing about it. And so, resignedly, I hit ‘play’.

His official theme and the most common takeaway based on the chatter in the aftermath, was that anyone who sells anything is or soon will be in the customer service business. Not the widget business, or the integrated, end-to-end source-optimized thus-and-so solution business, but the customer service business. Which manifestly makes sense in an age of fleeting and microscopic competitive advantage. But buried in the talk was a theme I thought was more fundamental than that: “Caring,” he spat, “is massively underrated.”

This week, I will quietly mark the end of my third decade in the branding business. A cowboy can’t help but reflect in moments like that. And I think the ‘Social Media Sommelier’ may have hit the nail of what has mattered, squarely on its flat little head. Every high moment, every piece of work that made a difference, every person that left a mark on me, every great product, every inspiration all had in common that single ingredient: Somebody, to use Gary’s vernacular, gave a f*ck. I have never had a proud or memorable moment in the company of a coolly professional, brilliantly calculating and detached marketing whiz. Whereas I’ve had more than I can count in the company of the opposite kind of animal. Passionate, unreasonable, certain that if they figured out how to make someone’s life better, the money would follow. I’ve had mentors like that. I’ve had clients like that. I’ve met legends in the industry who, to my complete delight, were still like that, unburnished by the years. I’ve had employees like that. And students like that, more than you might imagine. Caring people make caring brands; calculating people make calculating brands.

If I had to start over again, this is the only kind of brand – or human - I would allow within a hundred feet of me. And the best part is, things seem to turn out pretty well for them, which is more than I can say for the clever whizzes. I think, in fact, that caring is how you keep going.

Thanks for the heads-up, Gary. I kind of feel like celebrating.

Maybe I’ll even open a bottle of f*cking wine.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Bad Romance.

The travails of Toyota in the last few weeks have been like something out of The Crucible. It seemed like only yesterday that General Motors had sashayed into D.C. on a corporate jet to ask for a bailout when their four-decade quest to destroy shareholder value, American jobs and brand equity had finally succeeded, and here we were again. This time, instead of getting bags of money, the world’s largest and most successful car company was being subjected to a McCarthyesque inquisition and threatened with the FBI. The unreasonableness of this notwithstanding, it was a tough round for any brand. Considering our taste these days for watching the mighty fall, you had to wonder if this was going to be an epic turning point for the folks from Nagoya.

Except it wasn’t. Despite the best efforts of competitors, the media and the politicians, grassroots support for Toyota was extraordinary. Venture beyond commercial news outlets to places where every crisis doesn’t get its own logo, and you’d see a lot of people were being pretty evenhanded about the whole thing. Defensive, even. In online forums, many owners were dismissing the disaster as nothing more than a promise that Toyotas were going to get even better, given the corporate pride at stake. And at the end of February, when the whole witch hunt had reached its most fevered pitch, a Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans still had confidence in Toyota and thought its cars were safe. Owners were even more confident, with three quarters still having faith in their cars and more than 80% believing them to be safe, numbers that in my experience aren’t a quantum deviation from business as usual.

Why was Toyota so resilient? The answer, quite simply, is that consumers are accomplished pattern recognizers, and brands are understood as narratives. Toyota has rarely tried to dazzle and amaze us, whereas it has maintained its dull, plodding quest to avoid embarrassment for a long, long time. The Toyota of today hardly looks a jot different than the one I worked with twenty years ago. Sure, this isn’t over yet. Much depends on what Toyota does next. But the point is that, for now, people assume it will be good because history says that’s their nature. Whatever we may read about the company’s hubris, this brand is hardly what you could call narcissistic. Toyota’s brand bled less than it might have in this particular war because it sweated so much during the long peace that preceded it.

In a sane world, you would think that CEOs and marketing bosses would look at this stunning case and realize that whatever continuity they have in the hearts and minds of consumers is pure gold. Leadership edicts would be handed down. Iconic brands would stay religiously in character. Loved brands would redouble their efforts to remain lovable. Unloved brands would reach out to consumers to reassure them that they matter. Pointless change would be understood as retrograde. Brands would evolve, but they would evolve as stories rather than being variety shows with too many costume changes. You would think.

But we don’t live in a sane world, do we.

Or at least that’s how it’s been feeling the last little while. One after another, in fits of ambition-fueled caprice, certain marketers have chosen this moment – now, when awareness has become ludicrously expensive; now, when consumer confidence is precious and fragile – to kick time-tested icons to the curb. You have Oscar Mayer saying that people shouldn’t be singing that wiener song anymore, and that they would like their luncheon meat to be taken more seriously please. You have BMW ditching the brilliant slogan that built its North American franchise by grounding the brand in the cool competence of its machines. You have Cadillac firing ad agency and key marketing execs from the only successful brand GM has. And Heinz announcing changes to its ketchup recipe to make it a ‘healthier’ condiment for those fries. And AFLAC saying, enough with the duck.

Individually, I’m sure the perpetrators can spin convincing boardroom tales about why change is necessary. But taken together, it just seems like a pattern of reckless marketing. We live in a time when brands don’t have a lot of solid cultural ground to stand on. And consumers, believe it or not, like solid ground. They don’t understand or care that marketers get bored, or desperate, or, worst of all, ambitious. They just know that something they thought they thought was real turns out to be ephemera. People don’t have much of a memory for details when these things happen, it’s true. But they remember the feeling of disruption, and their memory for feelings is unerring and eternal. For them, a brand that remains essentially true to its story is understood to be authentic.

Whereas a brand that changes its clothes every time it wants attention is understood to be Lady Gaga.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The assault on choice.

This year, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Naomi Klein’s cannonball into the shallow end of capitalism’s swimming pool, I decided to reread No Logo. A decade later, it still amazes me.

It’s deceptively unsurprising that I wouldn’t be a fan of a book that opposes the existence of brands. But the reason might surprise you a little. You see, I share her outrage at some of the conduct corporations have perpetrated in the name of profit, since the Industrial Revolution, frankly. My problem is not the observation of those things or the imperative to make them right. My problem is that No Logo – its central conceit, even – was simply dishonest.

When you read it critically, as I estimate about 10% of the people who own a copy actually did, you quickly realize that Klein’s masterpiece is not an incitement to war against marketing, or even against corporations. It’s an incitement to class struggle. The dishonestly lies in its packaging, which would be hilariously ironic if it were not so chillingly calculated. And I don’t just mean the physical book, which itself is a marketing triumph, given its Bruce Mau-designed logo, shrewdly manipulated agitprop images and blizzard of journalistic-looking citations and references. I mean the rhetorical package. Klein wants us to be outraged about the world’s unfair distribution of wealth and abuse of power – and we should be - but she knows that only the converted will listen to that polemic. So, instead, she gives it a name everybody can identify with: brands. Brilliantly, she hijacks the labels on the stuff we wear and drive and eat and makes them stand for something awful, while conveniently giving us someone else to blame so that we don’t disengage. So that we can be swept along by her impassioned but spindly argument, propped up by out of context data, ludicrous assumptions about the evil genius of marketing, and inflamed political rhetoric that would make a military dictator blush. In a piece for Canadian Business, Klein’s friend Andrew Potter – meaning it as a compliment – called her ‘The Marketer of the Decade”. Without buying into the rest of his fan letter, I wholeheartedly agree.

Fortunately, though the book was a commercial success, its manifesto was not. Well, that’s probably not completely fair. It certainly scared a few corporations straight during its bestselling time in the limelight. That’s a good thing. But in as much as it seemed to want to make brands a thing of the past, it was a pretty comprehensive failure. The last decade has seen anything but the waning of their health.

And that, I would argue, is a very good thing. The fact is – yes, fact. I really don’t see how this is debatable – brands democratize marketplaces. As long as there are brands, there is choice, and choice keeps power in the hands of consumers. And as long as there are brands, there is at least some corporate accountability, because shame needs a name in order for the fear of it to be motivating. As is very much true of the state of democracy itself, the fact of its malpractice and abuses doesn’t alter the fact that it’s the best idea we’ve had so far, and very much worth saving. I may hate a running shoe company for its business practices, but that does not mean that I want my sneakers supplied by the Ministry of Footwear. Windows is bad enough.

So it was in this state of dudgeon that I came upon the Huffington Post piece on the 12 Least Ethical Companies in the World this morning, and felt just the tiniest bit vindicated. Because eight of them are corporations that don’t compete as consumer brands at all. Another, Philip Morris, doesn’t sell anything with that name on it, and another, Chevron, could barely be considered to ‘compete’ for our business, and another is a broadcaster founded by the Prime Minister of Italy. In fact, the only true branded marketer on the list was Ryanair, and the accountability bar in that industry is already damnably low. In other words, there seems to be at least a correlation between a corporation’s ethical behavior and the likelihood of a commercially meaningful public shaming. Were the reverse true, Ms. Klein would call that a smoking gun; not being a professional journalist, I’ll stop at correlation, and call it a sign of hope.

Anyway, happy anniversary, Naomi. There’s no doubt you’ve set an example for me to strive for. It’s just that the example is as “The Marketer of the Decade.” Which really is ironic.

If you ever decide to use your powers for good, give me a call.